Boo: The original Thai X-ing, Washington’s beloved but eccentric source of pumpkin curry on Florida Avenue NW, doesn’t have a liquor license and can no longer let diners bring their own beer or wine. The food deserves — demands — a chaser stronger than water or soda.
To the rescue: A same-name spinoff of the restaurant, opened this fall near the 9:30 Club, that not only makes a respectable gimlet, but also lets customers enjoy its food with a bottle of something from outside for what must be the city’s most thoughtful corkage fee: a mere $5.
So, even though both locations serve the same food, family style, they aren’t competitors, says Taw Vigsittaboot, the owner and chef of both Thai X-ings. Customers go to one or the other, he says, based on how much they like to party.
If they can get in. Aside from the no-reservations Little Serow, which requires customers to stand in line for a chance at its fireworks, no area Thai restaurant is a bigger challenge to access than the younger Thai X-ing. For whatever reason, the restaurant’s online reservation system never works for me, a problem even managers at the new place have conceded others have experienced. And good luck getting anyone to answer the phone. (Vigsittaboot, who divides his time between the two kitchens, says he communicates with his staff via their personal cell phones.)
My strategy for getting in is to show up at 6 p.m. — opening time — and schmooze whoever greets my posse at the door. Repeat after me: “We don’t have a reservation, but we’d love to join you tonight.” Those 12 words have worked for this diner more than once and as much as I hate to spill the beans, a server confirmed that early birds get the chicken masaman. “Six o’clock is golden,” a staff member whispered as she led me to a vacant table a few minutes after the hour. “But don’t tell anybody,” she told the wrong guy. (I can keep secrets, just not those involving good meals.)
“Do you know how this works?” a waiter occasionally asks. Most diners seem to know the drill involving five or so courses. Some nights have a theme (Sunday welcomes vegetarians), other evenings don’t. The common threads between new and old are no printed menu and dishes that start showing up once you’re seated and watered. Unless you’re cool with a dinner date ending in 20 minutes, let your guide know you’re not in a rush. This is food that deserves some contemplation.
The meal typically begins with green papaya salad and follows with soup. The salad, bright with lime juice and sweet with palm sugar, is pleasant. I have a hunch it would be more fun if Vigsittaboot made it the way his mother did back in Thailand, with dried shrimp. (On the phone, he suggests the flavor might turn customers off. I beg to differ. What smells like fish food combines with the other accents, including roasted peanuts and green beans, to give the dish its mysterious tropical charm.)
The soup, another staple of the original Thai X-ing taught to the chef by his grandmother, is apt to be a broth coaxed from pork bones, celery and pickled garlic; bobbing in the bowl is a log of cucumber hiding minced pork in its hollow. White pepper, cilantro root and enough pork fat to carry their flavors add up to a tasty meatball. Clearly, Vigsittaboot ate well as a youngster.
Next, one of Washington’s great dishes, the aforementioned pumpkin curry. Chunks of fresh pumpkin are cooked over slices of bamboo shoots to keep the orange signature from overcooking. Draping the dish is a velvety red curry that balances sweet (coconut milk) and heat (red chilies) with the skill of Nik Wallenda. I never leave a lick behind on the banana leaf.
A pause between courses gives me a chance to look around and note how the new, bigger-with-60-seats Thai X-ing sets itself apart from the Bohemian original, which occupies two floors in a townhouse.
The younger of the two opens with a small modern bar, some high-top tables and a peek into the kitchen. (A multitasker, Vigsittaboot, who supervises a total of five cooks from all over Thailand, says he built the green counter at the bar.) Beyond a beaded curtain is a dim dining room, at once antique (with dark wood and a ship’s wheel) and groovy (with furry throw pillows). Upstairs are a second bar and dining room.
Like the menu, the music varies. Jazz played while I enjoyed one night’s salmon curry; Vivaldi accompanied a plate of glassy mung bean noodles showered with peanuts, cilantro and slivers of sharp red onion. Hope for that chicken masaman with potatoes, too. Its mild gravy is fragrant with warm spices, and the chicken is so soft it falls from the bones.
Dessert is just what you crave after a tropical heat wave. Sometimes, dinner concludes with juicy slices of mango with sticky rice. (Is there a more sensual tropical fruit than mango? I think not.) Pumpkin and fruits in a warm and wonderful coconut cream are more intriguing.
Not every course soars, but the ordinary eats aren’t anything a squeeze of lime or the next dish in the lineup can’t rescue. Here’s the place to go, relatively inexpensively, with a group, or to make the vegan in your party feel welcome, with meatless menus on Tuesdays and Sundays. Throw in the gentle corkage fee and you’ve got one accommodating restaurant — once you’re in, of course.
Location: 2020 Ninth St. NW. 202-332-4322. www.thaix-ing.com.
Open: Tuesday-Sunday 6 to 9:30 p.m.
Prices: $30 per person Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; $40 per person Friday and Saturday. For parties of five or more, there’s a surcharge of $10 per person.
Sound check: 63 decibels/Conversation is easy